IF YOU GO
■ What: Nightfall concert series featuring the Packway Handle Band.
■ When: 8 p.m. Friday, May 2; The Dismembered Tennesseans open at 7.
■ Where: Miller Plaza, corner of M.L. King Boulevard, Market and Cherry streets.
■ Admission: Free.
■ Phone: 423-265-0771.
■ Venue website: www.nightfallchattanooga.com.
■ Artist website: www.packwayhandleband.com.
2003: "Chaff Harvest"
2005: "(Sinner) You Better Get Ready"
2007: "EP Extreme" (EP)
2008: "Packway Handle Band"
2010: "What Are We Gonna Do Now?"
The Dismembered Tennesseans is a local bluegrass group with roots stretching back to 1945, when it was founded by fiddler Fletcher Bright at the McCallie School. Its members include Ed "Doc" Cullis (banjo), Laura Walker (bass), Bobby Martin (guitar), Don Cassell (mandolin) and Brian Blaylock (multiple instruments). For more information, visit www.dismemberedtennesseans.com.
Finding a convenient niche that accurately reflects the music of the Packway Handle Band can feel like trying to make sense of a platypus.
Andrew Heaton (fiddle), Josh Erwin (guitar/vocals), Michael Paynter (mandolin), Tom Baker (banjo) and Zach McCoy (bass) have been challenging musical conventions ever since they joined forces in Athens, Ga., in the early 2000s.
Packway Handle formed at a time when Athens' musical scene was inundated with bluegrass bands riding the coattails of the genre's meteoric rise to popularity with the release of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"
Despite looking like a bluegrass band and -- thanks to having all the requisite instruments -- quacking like one from time to time, Packway Handle Band was never a part of the bluegrass mainstream. Instead, the musicians prefer to dogpaddle around in the oxbows and tributaries, folding in material such as folk songs, spirituals and unexpected covers, such as The Pixies' "Where Is My Mind."
"If you turn XM Radio to the bluegrass station, Packway Handle doesn't sound like a lot of those bands," Erwin says, laughing.
The uncertainty of the band's identity wasn't just from the outside looking in. The title of the group's last album, 2010's "What Are We Gonna Do Now?" was a legitimate question, Erwin says.
"It was really, 'What are we going to do now?' in the sense of, 'What direction are we going?'" he says.
"Now, we're focused on what direction we're really going in."
For the last four years, the band flirted with the different concepts. Its members considered putting out an acoustic tribute to Devo in 2012 but decided against it when they concluded that would only add to listeners' confusion after releasing a faux "gospel" album, "(Sinner) You Better Get Ready," in 2005.
Instead, they've introduced The Rattletrap, a 35-minute, midshow tangent during which Erwin trades in his acoustic guitar for an electric one, Baker puts down the banjo and picks up a six-string, and Paynter substitutes a percussive kit for his mandolin.
In recent years, Rattletrap has become increasingly well-defined and central to the band's sound, Erwin says, and will feature prominently on the next album, which should be out early next year.
Friday night, May 9, Packway Handle Band will headline the second week of this year's Nightfall concert series. Having access to Rattletrap may seem to only add to the confusion, Erwin says, but from their perspective, it's just one more tool in the box.
"I think it's a healthy crisis. It's not a dichotomy," he says. "Both sides of the whole thing compliment each other. It's a matter of how far an audience is into it and familiar with us."
Contact Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.
Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...